Beyond the Duck Houses
Ten years ago today, the Telegraph began publishing, in daily instalments, the expense claims made by British MPs over the previous four years. The humiliating examples were laid out like the yard sale of a bankrupt family: digital radios, hobnobs, light bulbs, fluffy dusters, scatter cushions, ice cube trays and toilet brushes.
The freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke had tried for years to have the receipts made public. She has described the scandal as a ‘victory’ for the people over Parliament and its ‘elitist attitude’. One effect of insisting on the ‘class’ distinction between the ‘right honourable gentlemen’ and the public ‘lower down’ was to distract from more egregious inequality. The anniversary coverage has barely mentioned that the expenses scandal occurred immediately after the financial crash. Public outrage over claims for bath plugs that cost 88p functioned as a safety valve for anger at the £850 billion spent bailing out the banks.
The widespread disgust at personally profligate MPs can only have helped arguments for austerity, which rely on the economic fallacy that a nation’s finances are like a household budget. The idea that politicians were living beyond their means at our expense made it easier for David Cameron and George Osborne to peddle the bogus notion that the state, too, was spending more than it could afford.
Most of the MPs who maxed out their allowances on luxuries at the end of the financial year were playing by the rules – which since the 1980s had encouraged them to ‘fill their boots’ in lieu of a pay rise – but several were found guilty of false accounting and mortgage fraud; some were jailed.
From coffee spoons to dog food, many of the items claimed for were small enough for it to seem as if we were paying for MPs’ weekly shop. Mark Oaten was pilloried for claiming £5 for oven gloves. Other claims – for duck houses and moat cleaning, chandeliers and swimming pools – exposed a gulf between them and us. Anthony Steen, the former Conservative member for Totnes, ran up nearly £90,000 over four years for the upkeep of his country estate. He said voters were jealous of his ‘very very large house’. ‘One more squeak like that,’ Cameron said, ‘and he will have the whip taken away from him so fast his feet won’t touch the ground.’
The expenses scandal was the spark that ignited the anti-political rage now engulfing British democracy. It presaged Nigel Farage’s promise to ‘put the fear of God’ into MPs, the trolling and death threats, the murder of Jo Cox. As Cameron’s cut-glass vernacularism illustrates, what is referred to as ‘populism’ is often driven by an elite. The pitchforks are provided by right-wing party donors, financiers and astroturf PR men: the likes of Lord Ashcroft, Arron Banks and Lynton Crosby.
When Tony Blair first proposed a Freedom of Information Act as shadow home secretary in 1992 (he chided himself in his memoirs, published the year after the expenses scandal, for being a ‘naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop’), he promised ‘new rights to shine the light of knowledge not just through the cobwebs of Whitehall, but into the dark corners of the private sector’. This has not come to pass: ‘commercial sensitivity’ keeps companies immune. Only public bodies need be ‘accountable’.
Apparently unable to open up the private sector to public scrutiny, instead we probe the private finances of public figures. Brooke – along with the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a right-wing pressure group – warned that ‘if nobody is looking out for public money it can very easily become private money.’ But the processes by which really significant amounts of public money become private – rent-seeking, privatised utility profiteering, the use of tax havens – remain obscure.
It’s true that MPs are disproportionately wealthy, and too many are PPE graduates from Oxford. But this is circumstantial not intrinsic, the result of neoliberal policies that have compromised social mobility and weakened working-class representation. In 1979, 16 per cent of MPs had a background in manual work; in 2010 the proportion had dropped to 4 per cent. The word ‘elite’ means privileged, but it also means simply those who are elected. Right-wing populism elides the two.
A successful democracy relies on established norms and traditions, institutional checks and balances, and careful deliberation behind closed doors – all of which can appear aloof and opaque. Unless we defend and reframe them for a post-deferential age, the anti-system right will continue to undermine the only mechanism we have for enacting large-scale change. Nobody is making the positive case for what MPs should do, not even liberals, who now call for a plague on both their houses, mirroring Farage’s claim that ‘the two-party system … has been exposed as unfit for purpose’. The more we cut our MPs down to size, the less able they are to subject the forces of capital to meaningful oversight and represent our interests at a high level. Public figures become mere private individuals, with their pints of milk and their loo roll.